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Except for July and August, when everyone was away from the city, Maisie Verdurin, the art dealer, entertained in her Park Avenue apartment at large monthly dinner parties that had become so significant a part of the social life of New York that even people in the subways, at least those people in the subways who read the social columns, knew her name. In her interviews, as a hostess of repute, Maisie Verdurin often talked about society today being made up of people of accomplishment—the doers, she called them—and she had only words of contempt for the highly pedigreed few who rode through life on inherited wealth and social perfection. What she could not, simply could not, stand, ever, was to be bored, she often said, and the kind of people who came each month to sit on her sixty gilded ballroom chairs placed around eight tables—six tables of eight, two tables of six—set up in her drawing room, dining room, and library, were guaranteed to provide the kind of conversation that could never, ever, bore.
All the Cézannes, Van Goghs, Picassos, and Monets on her green moiré walls were for sale, and her dinners, which her detractors claimed she used as tax deductions, were a way of doing business and bringing together the political, financial, media, and literary figures of New York into her Rigaud-scented rooms.
Maisie infinitely preferred her own dinners to other people’s dinners, but on the occasions she was asked back by the people she had invited, she sometimes called Augustus Bailey to escort her. Gus Bailey, a perennial spare man, obliged if he was free, and their conversations, in taxicabs on their way to and from the dinners, were always monopolized by Maisie, who rarely expressed any curiosity about Gus’s life. She knew that he had a California past; she knew he had been something or other in films at one time; but neither California nor films interested her, in the way that Wall Street financiers did, or arbitrage traders, or real-estate entrepreneurs, whose first step on the road to riches was the acquisition of art, and she simply assumed Gus’s agreement when she sometimes asked, “Aren’t you glad to be away from California?” Gus was glad to be away from California, but not for the reasons Maisie supposed, which had mostly to do with what she called a singleness of theme, the movies, in dinner-table conversations “out there.” Maisie also knew that Gus had a wife in California, with money, called, improbably, Peach, whom a lot of people knew, but that sort of information was of less interest to Maisie than the facts that Gus Bailey had a good dinner jacket, could keep up his end of the conversation, and didn’t have to be whispered to by the butler to remove the finger bowl and doily before the crème brûlée could be served.
Maisie took Gus to Rochelle Prud’homme’s party at Clarence’s to launch her new line of cordless hairdryers, which Gus hadn’t wanted to go to, but there he ran into his old friend Nestor Calder, a Brooklyn-born novelist of note, whose latest book, Judas Was a Redhead, was on the best-seller list.
“I liked your new book, Nestor,” said Gus. “It’ll make a terrific movie.”
“They don’t make movies of books anymore, Gus. They make mini-series of books. One of the studios is interested in making a mini-series of it,” answered Nestor. “But they don’t want me to write the screenplay, and I’ll only sell it if I do write the screenplay.”
“It seems to me I’ve heard that song before,” said Gus.
“How’s it going, Gus?” asked Nestor Calder. They had once worked on a film together.
“Oh, okay,” replied Gus. When anyone became personal with Gus Bailey, he replied in as few words as possible.
“How’s Peach?” he asked.
“Do you hear from her?”
“Give her my love, will you?”
“I’m going to be in L.A. next week to meet with the studio,” said Nestor.
“Peach will want to hear from you,” replied Gus.
Even after they were divorced, people who had been their friends still thought of Gus and Peach Bailey as a couple. Gus and Peach, people would say. “Do you remember that night at Gus and Peach’s house in Malibu?” Or, “I still think that Gus and Peach’s black-and-white dance was the prettiest party I’ve ever been to.” When friends would meet Peach in California, they’d say to her, “How’s Gus?” Or, if they ran into Gus in New York, they’d say, “How’s Peach?” as if they were still one when they hadn’t been one for nearly as many years as they had been.
“Are you involved with anyone, Gus?” asked Nestor.
“I’m not being snoopy, you know.”
“It’s just that you never talk about yourself.”
“I talked nonstop all through dinner.”
“You talked nonstop all through dinner about all those people you write articles about.”
Gus’s friends, like Edwina and Nestor Calder, teased Gus because he went out to dinner every night. Some nights he went out with writers, like the Calders. Some nights he went out with movie people he knew from his Hollywood days. Some nights he went out with people in society, who called him up after they read the articles he wrote, or had their social secretaries call him up “Mrs. Harcourt wondered if you could dine on Wednesday the twenty-first, black tie,” they would say, in voices every bit as grand as those of the people for whom they telephoned. Mostly he listened to what his dinner partners had to say, for he was an excellent listener, giving them his full attention, whether they were witty or dull, intriguing or boring. It seemed to make no difference to him.
“What do you see in all those people you’re always having dinner with?” asked Nestor.
“I like to listen to them talk,” answered Gus.
“When does that guy get out of prison?” asked Nestor, changing the subject and lowering his voice.
Gus didn’t have to say, “What guy?”
“Two years from now,” he answered, quietly, wanting to withdraw from the direction the conversation was taking. There was a part of Gus’s life that he did not discuss with the people with whom he spent his time, even a friend like Nestor Calder, who spanned both his old life and his new life.
Nestor whistled. “So soon, huh?”
“What was his name?”
Gus hesitated, as he always hesitated when the name came up. “Lefty Flint,” he answered.
“Does it worry you?” asked Nestor.
“Yes,” said Gus. “It worries Peach too.”
“The nerve of that Edwina Calder,” Maisie Verdurin said indignantly in the taxi on the way home. “She said she didn’t like her seat at my last party, for the Vice President and his wife. Can you imagine?”
Gus, who liked Edwina Calder, didn’t reply, but Maisie didn’t expect a reply.
“She said that I never seat her at what she called one of the good tables, but that I always seated Nestor at one of the good tables. So I said to her, ‘After all, Edwina, Nestor is a first-rate writer, and people want to talk to him.’ ”
“But Edwina is so beautiful,” said Gus.
“Beautiful girls are not what my dinners are about,” Maisie answered haughtily. “My dinners are about conversation. I think it’s a waste of time at one of my dinners when a man flirts with a pretty girl, like Bernie Slatkin does for instance, when there are such marvelous things being said at every table. It’s called missing the point of the evening.”
Maisie always spoke possessively about her dinner parties, as creative output, in the way that a poet might speak about “my poems,” or an author might speak about “my novels,” and woe to anyone who displeased Maisie, for banishment from her list was the consequence. After each of her evenings, she dissected her guest list: who had pulled his weight in conversation, who hadn’t, whom she had given too good a seat to, whom she had not given a good enough seat to, and who would never be invited back, no matter what.
One of the things about escorting Maisie Verdurin anywhere, Gus discovered, was that the end of the evening came at exactly the point where she was delivered back to the canopy in front of her apartment building and into the safekeeping of her doorman. There were no invitations upstairs for a nightcap, and all the things that implied. It was not even necessary to follow her out of the taxi to her doorstep. With her sables wrapped tightly around her, she dashed for her own door with only an over-the-shoulder reminder of her next dinner.
“You’re coming to me on the twenty-fourth, remember.”
“You didn’t write a thank-you note after my last dinner,” she added.
“I sent you flowers instead,” said Gus. “I felt I was beginning to repeat myself with my notes.”
“Don’t send me flowers,” said Maisie. “I never go into my living room except on the nights I have parties. Just send me a note. I save them all and put them in a scrapbook.”